At Loose Ends
Remarriage After Divorce In Today’s Church: Three Views
reviewed by Russell D. Moore
Almost without exception, every contemporary church leader must contend with the issue of divorce and remarriage. This doesn’t simply mean one must think through the issue in the abstract, how to preach the “exception clause” when moving through an expository sermon series on Matthew.
A pastor must have an answer when he is asked to perform the wedding ceremony of the church pianist to her second husband. One must decide whether a man, otherwise qualified for ordination as deacon, is the “husband of one wife” if he’s married to a woman whose first husband abused and abandoned her twenty years before.
The Zondervan “Counterpoints” series takes on this controversial topic with a debate/dialogue between three Evangelical biblical scholars with sharply divergent takes on how the church should speak to the divorced and the remarried.
Gordon Wenham, an Anglican professor at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education in England, argues the position that remarriage is never permissible after divorce, since the one-flesh union of the marriage covenant cannot be annulled by any human action, much less a civil court decree.
“In the first three centuries of the Christian era, not a single writer supposes that the New Testament allows remarriage after divorce,” Wenham contends. “Since these writers’ mother tongue was Greek, they understood the language of the New Testament much better than any modern scholar.” He goes on to demonstrate his interpretation of the so-called exception clauses in Matthew and 1 Corinthians, passages he believes are not “exceptions” at all.
William Heth, a professor of New Testament and Greek at Taylor University, once co-authored a book with Wenham arguing against any remarriage. He explains in his chapter why he has now changed his mind. He argues for remarriage after divorce in the limited cases of adultery (which annuls the marriage covenant) and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.
He claims that his view is the majority view among Evangelical Christians. He also asserts that divorced and remarried persons should not be automatically excluded from positions of leadership in the church.
Craig Keener, professor of biblical studies at Palmer Theological Seminary, agrees with Heth that remarriage is allowed in cases of adultery and abandonment, but does not agree that these are the only cases. He argues that abuse of a spouse, for example, is reasonable grounds for divorce.
He further notes that the “exception clauses” speak to the tragedy of divorce itself, not to the “permission” or lack thereof to remarry. Keener therefore cautions pastoral sensitivity and welcome to those who have divorced and been remarried.
As with most “Counterpoints” books, the major deficiency of this work is that, by its very setup, it seems to assume that there are several “options” for the reader to choose among on the subject. On the other hand, the book recognizes that divorce and remarriage is, in this culture, a pastoral and ecclesial crisis, one that demands a word from the Lord. I fear that too many Christian churches have none of the positions outlined in this book, but have instead fallen into the culture’s “one wife at a time” mentality.
The volume could help pastors and other church leaders sort through the biblical and theological data on the subject. But knowing the data is by itself never enough. One can only hope that, having done so, we will then have the courage to speak to it, whatever the cost.
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“At Loose Ends” first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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